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Norwich Free Academy students question candidates at forum

Norwich — A planned state Senate candidates’ debate Tuesday turned into a two-candidate forum with one Senate incumbent and a Republican House District candidate in a different race, when their opponents did not attend.

Four-term 19th District Democratic state Sen. Cathy Osten and 46th District state House Republican candidate Robert Bell shared the stage at the Slater Auditorium at Norwich Free Academy for the hourlong candidate forum and fielded questions from students in the NFA Debate Club and members of the Norwich NAACP Robertsine Duncan Youth Council.

Osten’s opponents, Republican Steve Weir and Independent Party-endorsed candidate William Russell, and Bell’s opponent, Democratic 46th District state Rep. Emmett Riley, did not attend the forum.

Questions ranged from educational issues to the state’s COVID-19 response, job creation and health insurance coverage.

In response to a question about how the state can help Connecticut reopen businesses suffering with COVID-19 closures and restrictions, Osten said the best way to recover economically is through consumer confidence. She said people need to continue to follow the preventive protocols of wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. But she added that the state will need to offer loans to help some small businesses survive the pandemic.

Bell said COVID-19 restrictions put a “very large strain on our economy” and on children thrust into remote learning. He questioned why bars must remain closed, while restaurants are open. He said with proper protocols in place, the state should “put trust back to the public” to follow the rules and allow the businesses to reopen.

Bell said the steps the state and local schools have taken to ease back into in-person learning are working, even with the uptick in COVID-19 cases in southeastern Connecticut. Disease spread has not been occurring in schools, he said.

Osten said schools still need the financial resources to purchase personal protective equipment and necessary supplies, including laptops and internet hot spots for students in areas where wireless service is weak.

Asked how to properly fund financially struggling state colleges while keeping tuition and housing affordable, Bell said he would support a state-funded voucher system starting at lower grades and continuing through high school. With a $20,000 per year voucher, a student could choose their schools and retain any amount remaining upon high school graduation to attend state colleges.

Osten said she has been working on a plan to ensure free access to community college in the state, first by requiring students to apply for federal education grants. She would also use the state’s budgeted matching share of a canceled public-private partnership to improve education and support free access to community college.

“We do need to do some work at the state universities,” Osten said, proposing to use federal COVID-19 relief funds to offset costs at state universities and colleges.

Both candidates said they would support making the currently optional teaching of African American and Latino history in high school mandatory and expanding it to all grades. Osten said she fought to add Native American history to the bill and would do so again. She said the optional class was approved nearly unanimously as a social justice issue, so adding Native American history would expand that goal.

“I think that’s where our history begins, so we understand our true history,” Osten said. “Even our state name is an Indian name.”

Bell said he would support expanding African American and Latino history to all grades and making it mandatory. But he added there are other classes that should be mandated in high school, including business classes on loans, mortgages and finances.

c.bessette@theday.com

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